You will hate poetry if you don’t know how to read it.
Or, at least, you will like fewer poems than you would if you knew how to read it.
But you don’t have to love all poetry. I don’t.
The key to poetry—reading or writing it—is to never force it. As I stated in my poetry class the other day:
You cannot write with the answer.
Similarly, in reading it:
You cannot read thinking you have all the answers.
The best way for me to help you read poetry is to tell you how I read poetry, with some tips I’ve picked up along the way plus standard protocol for poets in the biz.
1. Just read. Pick up whatever collection you might have or be interested in and read. There is no pressure at this stage to read anything that doesn’t draw you in. Don’t force it. Just read until something gives you pause. It’s okay if you read several before something stops you. You could even read titles and or first lines if you wish, but poems are short, reading all the way through each poem won’t harm you, and it will give you more than if you expect every poem to blow your mind. If you force it, you won’t receive what the poet is trying to offer you.
2. When something gives you pause, stop. Slow down. This is the point to start paying attention. It could be anything from
• how the poet grouped certain words
• a description that makes you stop and want to take it in
• any line or stanza that brings to light some new truth that you’ve
never thought of before
Just read the part a few times. If something more strikes you as you read it over, great, but if not, it’s okay to move on. This is just an opportunity to slow down your hectic world and get more out of something that may seem so small and simple to the harried eye.
3. After you’ve taken a short pause, continue reading the poem all the way through. At the end, stop another moment, and just let it seep in. In that short amount of time, from the opening to the close of the poem, what did you get out of it? Did you get anything? Do you think that whatever lay between the title and the last line was complete?
• How did it make you feel?
• What are some thoughts it made you think?
• Was there a theme/impression it left?
• If you could summarize the poem in a few words, what would they be?
(You could even take a few words or lines from the poem that you think
define the poem.)
4. Now read back through the poem after you’ve asked yourself these questions and settled on a theme. As you go back through, see if everything you just read fits the theme you’ve given it. Make note of places where maybe it doesn’t, and highlight anything that you believe reaffirms your theme, or speaks to your theme strongly.
5. At the end of your second or subsequent read-throughs, ask yourself: Is my theme consistent with the poem? If there are lines that do not match up with your impression, ask yourself two things:
• Could there be a meaning, metaphor, or other poetic device the poet is using that I might be misreading?
• Could there be another theme, different from mine, that I am overlooking because I am getting in the way of the poetry?
This second question is the key to art: empathy. Putting yourself in the place of the poet. Removing your beliefs, opinions, perceptions so you can see the world from another point of view. Are there, even, any experiences and truths from your own life that maybe you’ve forgotten or buried that make you think this poem is about something other than what the poet may have intended?
At this point, you can read the poem as often as you like until you feel you have discovered the secret to the universe the poet has tried to reveal.
But again, don’t force it. If you’ve tried, and you keep getting the same thing from the poem, it may not speak to you. Take from it what you can—whatever it was that stopped you during the very first read-through.
If it’s beautiful language, keep those lines with you to inspire your own writing.
If it was a description, use it to remember the beauty you didn’t see in the world before.
If there was a new truth revealed, try to perceive your everyday a little differently than you did before you found those lines.
And if nothing else, be grateful for this piece of honesty, vulnerability, and beautiful writing that someone was brave enough to put out into the world.